Questioning The Narrative of Work

“I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached.” Bertrand Russell

The above quote is taken from Russell’s essay “In Praise of Idleness” written in 1932. 1932! I wonder what he would think of the developed nations of today. It seems mankind has continued to labor more than is necessary; but why?

Why do we work and why do we work so much? These questions are important for even if you can answer the first one, the answer is likely not sufficient to answer the second one. I’ve been thinking of work and to what degree it is necessary since I took a year off from employment while working on the house I purchased. In the past 30 months I have only be employed for half that time and I can say unequivocally that I enjoyed every moment of the time I had off. No schedule to adhere to, no work politics to grow weary of and no 40 plus hours a week doing something when I would rather be doing something else. I think many can relate to this because one of the goals for many of you reading this is to free yourself from the necessity of working as much as you currently do, if at all. Regardless of what kind of work you do and how much you enjoy it, I’m sure you can think of something else to do with your days. If you can’t, well, this post is likely not going to be of much interest to you.

Work is very much a part of our culture. Many times upon meeting a stranger and speaking for even the briefest of time the questions arises, “What do you do?” We are defined by what we do and we reinforce this conditioning continuously without much thought, because everyone works, right? So let’s assume there is a narrative at play when it comes to work, just like there is a narrative when it comes to most of the beliefs we hold. That narrative that exists today is that of work as being virtuous and even a part of who we are. We are told to find work that we are “passionate” about and for good reason. For the narrative to work and for you to spend so much of your precious life on it, then there better be some strong reasons for doing so.

Hopefully you are now thinking of some of the reasons why you work and why you work as much as you do. As you continue to read I want you to bracket those beliefs for a moment and be open to an alternative narrative, if only for the time it takes you to read this post.

Let’s take our magic eraser and wipe our minds clean of everything we’ve been taught about work. Imagine for a moment that you have discovered a new civilization. This civilization is strikingly similar to our own. They look the same, have many of the same mannerisms and even appear to live lives very similar to our own. You notice that they have developed the means to provide themselves the necessities of life and only need to work four hours a day. But instead you see them continuing to work much longer, sometimes eight or twelve hour days and occasionally longer! You think to yourself, “ Why do they work so much when they already have the means to provide for themselves?” An excellent question dear reader, why do we?

“From the beginning of civilization until the Industrial Revolution, a man could as a rule, produce by hard work little more than was required for the subsistence of himself and his family.” Bertrand Russell

Can you imagine what life must have been like when you worked extremely hard just to provide the very basics of life? If you are reading this, you only have to imagine, but there are still places in the world today where it is the lot of a man’s life to spend most of the hours in his day providing for basic needs. For a good majority of us we have been freed from such necessity, but what do we do with such freedom? We work more! It is indeed a crazy state of affairs…

In the above example of our imaginary civilization I used four as the number of hours of work needed to provide for ourselves, this was not an arbitrary number. Russell uses it in his essay, “In Praise of Idleness” as the amount of work needed to meet our basic needs. This is the same number proposed by Keynes as the amount of work needed for man to acquire the necessities of life.( Actually I think Keynes may have believed that three hours of work a day was all we needed.) Bertrand and Keynes were contemporaries and I speculate that Bertrand borrowed the example from his friend the economist. What I find most fascinating and why I believe that the amount of work required of man is even less is because this was being promoted in 1932! Would you not agree that in the eighty plus years that have passed, we have gained even more efficiency in our means of production, meaning even less amounts of work are needed? I think that is exactly the case.

We’ve been discussing this idea of work and how much of it is needed, but I’ve yet to give a working definition of what I think work means. What a poor philosopher I would make.

Every living organism has to participate in activity that is necessary for sustaining itself. Regardless of whether we are talking about a deer, bird, fish or human; a certain amount of daily activity is spent on providing the essentials for living. And this activity is what I define as “work”. I have stripped it of its virtue, of its glamour, and of its narrative. What is left is simply an activity we must participate in to provide for the things we need.   Nothing more, nothing less.

In the modern age we are no longer familiar with the direct link between the work we do and necessities it provides. Odds are good that you don’t grow all of your own food, you buy it. You don’t sew your own clothing, you buy them. You don’t build your own home, you buy one. Using money as an exchange for services has freed up massive amounts of time once spent on providing ourselves just the bare necessities, but for whatever reason we work far beyond what is necessary to meet our needs and even a few basic luxuries.  I believe that if more people stopped and questioned why they are working so much and provided themselves with honest answers they would begin to write a new narrative, one that no longer viewed work as something noble, but for what it really is; a means to an end, not the end itself.

Questioning what work really is has brought me to the point where I decided that working for myself was going to be the best option. It is an experiment in freedom, working only for what I need and giving myself the option of decreasing or increasing my workload as I see fit, not for the benefit of some company. I do believe that it may be possible to structure my life to where a 4 hour work day is possible while still holding to the idea that even fewer hours are needed. I’ll likely write more about this as I continue down the path and gain more experience with it. For now, I want you to know why it is important for me to reduce my work hours and why I believe it may be beneficial to you as well. The more we reduce our time spent on work the more time we free up for leisure and it is within leisure that the good life is to be found. You can expect a companion article to this one dealing with leisure in the very near future.

What do you think? Is it possible to work only four hours or less a day? Why or why not and why are more people not taking advantage of the possibilities?

One thought on “Questioning The Narrative of Work

  1. Pingback: The Stoic’s Spending Revealed! | The Stoic Investor

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